That War Would Cease: The Christmas Truce of 1914

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“Tonight, these men were drawn to that altar like it was a fire in the middle of winter. Even those who aren’t devout came to warm themselves.” Chaplain Palmer Joyeux Noël

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The war was supposed to be over by Christmas, or so the planners had said. Instead after a series of massive battles that produced unprecedented number of casualties the war settled into a stalemate. As the sides exhausted themselves in a series of meeting engagements throwing the flower of their idealistic youth into the great maw of the front to be torn apart by massed artillery and machine gun fire the planners sought new ways to find military victory.

In December 1914 with neither side having the ability to force the issue and casualties already running over a million dead and wounded the armies dug in. Massive trench networks were constructed in the mud of France and Belgium as the artillery continued its impersonal work of destroying men, machines and the homeland of millions of civilians.

From Clipboard

Despite the stalemate the high commands of the various nations continued to through their troops into meaningless attacks to gain a few yards of their opponent’s trench networks. The attackers always suffered the worst as they went “over the top” and were cut down by well sited machine guns and networks of defensive redoubts.

As Christmas neared individual parties of British and German troops began to fraternize exchanging gifts and attempting despite the wishes of their commanders to maintain an attitude of live and let live. On Christmas Eve German troops began to decorate their trenches with Christmas trees and lights, carols were sung and Christmas greetings exchanged as the local truces became widespread and soldiers met in no man’s land to talk and give each other gifts of cigarettes, alcohol, food and souvenirs.  In some places the sides helped each other collect and bury their dead and some Chaplains even led Christmas services in which men of both sides worshipped.

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The truce would not last as the high commands of each side issued strict orders against them and within days had moved the units that they believed most “infected” by the Christmas spirit to other locations and replaced them with units inculcated with the message of the inhumanity of their enemy. Such messages often included the religious understanding of this being a “holy war” against enemies of God and humanity. It is funny that though Moslems are frequently demonized for committing Jihad that Christians have a terrible record when it comes to finding theological reasons to kill those that they believe, even other Christians to be the enemy.

Christmas Day December 1914 World War One

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-MGfNsgB3A

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This really wasn’t surprising, after all for in the years leading up to the war many school children, especially in France and Germany had been propagandized. Churches and ministers cooperated in the carnage. In the movie Joyeux Noel the British Padre who had cooperated in the Christmas truce is relieved by his Bishop and sent home. The Bishop then preaches to the newly arrived soldiers, those replacing the men who had found peace for a moment. The sermon is not a work of fiction, it is actually part of a sermon that actually was given in Westminster Abbey in 1915. It was a sentiment that fit the mood of the high command who sought to minimize the danger of peace without victory. It was a sermon, the likes of which were preached by ministers, preachers, priests and bishops throughout that terrible war. It is a sermon that many preachers, Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu even today mimic with terrible consequences.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMPxjUE40iw

“Christ our Lord said, “Think not that I come to bring peace on earth. I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” The Gospel according to St. Matthew. Well, my brethren, the sword of the Lord is in your hands. You are the very defenders of civilization itself. The forces of good against the forces of evil. For this war is indeed a crusade! A holy war to save the freedom of the world. In truth I tell you: the Germans do not act like us, neither do they think like us, for they are not, like us, children of God. Are those who shell cities populated only by civilians the children of God? Are those who advanced armed hiding behind women and children the children of God? With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old. Kill every one of them so that it won’t have to be done again.”

Unfortunately I have met and heard men preach the same message against those they hate, a message that twists the words of Jesus in a diabolical way to justify the worst acts of nations and peoples. In the year 2013 wars rage around the world. Some are conducted by well organized professional militaries but many by militias, paramilitary and terrorists groups. In some cases the brutality and inhumanity exhibited makes the industrialized carnage of the First World War seem sane. Even now preachers of various religions, including Christians, Moslems and Jews advocate the harshest treatment of the enemies of their peoples all in “the name of God.”

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Six years ago I was traveling up and down the western border of Iraq with Syria. I was visiting our Marines that were advising the Iraqi Army and Border Forces, conducting Christmas services for them and also visiting Iraqi soldiers as well as civilians. In a couple of instances Iraqi and Jordanian Christians working as interpreters came to the Eucharist services, for one it had been years since he had received the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Communion. While out and about visiting Iraqis we were hosted by Iraqi troops and well as Bedouin tribesmen and their families. The warmth and hospitality and faith of these wonderful people was amazing.  T.E. Lawrence wrote that the Bedouin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God.” 

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I think that for me that Christmas week was the one that will remain with me more than any and despite being in a war zone, it for me was a time of peace on earth and good will toward men.

Maybe someday we will begin to understand.

Peace

Padre Steve+

6 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, film, History, iraq,afghanistan, Religion, Tour in Iraq

6 responses to “That War Would Cease: The Christmas Truce of 1914

  1. The 1914 Xmas truce is one of the most heart warming true stories ever heard and a most fitting one to be told at Xmas ,when you think about it war with Germany was crazy ,like a totaly overblown family feud Anglo Saxons fighting Saxons etc etc,it would never have happened when the matriarch and the Kaiser’s Grandmother Queen Victoria was alive !

  2. Vinson

    The longing for peace by those who bear the profound burdens of war…

  3. I wrote a much more brief version of this, Padre. Did you know that some commanders actually ordered barrages into “no man’s land”, to dissuade further fraternisation?
    What a counterpoint to the great French army rebellion of a few years later…
    In case our paths don’t cross before then, a very Merry Christmas to you and yours!

    • padresteve

      Merry Christmas to you as well my friend. It is sad that those that desire death more than life would do such things. I have read about the incidents where this happened, Hard to believe that men would be so consumed by their agenda of destruction that they would resort to such measures. The French almost lost the war during that mutiny, which their high command deserved.

  4. drdenis

    Thank you brother,
    I too have shared the same story but not the final comments which made it even more poignant. “T.E. Lawrence wrote that “the Beduin could not look for God within him: he was too sure that he was within God.” and I wrote as my message this year in the concluding statemnet “Christ in you the hope of Glory.

  5. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate and commented:

    Friends of Padre Steve’s World
    Well it is almost Christmas, in fact in less than a week that day will be upon us. However this Christmas, like nearly every other that has come before will be marked by war, inhumanity, tyranny and terrorism. In many places there will be no peace on earth, or good will toward men, nor for that matter women or children.
    That being said I do think that if people of good will had their way that wars could cease. That may sound naive but there was a time that it almost happened, in a place of such great carnage that just months before people could not imagine.
    It was the Christmas 1914 on the Western Front and already during the Battle of the Frontiers, the Marne and Ypres nearly a half million French, British, Belgian and German soldiers had been killed or wounded. In the east Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia were engaged in battles consuming the lives of men at rates hitherto unimaginable.
    But in the midst of that carnage peace began to break out. It was the Christmas Truce of 1914.
    I wrote this last year and did some editing and made some other changes to include adding links to scenes from the film Joyeux Noel.
    In the hope of peace on earth,
    Padre Steve+

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